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Published: April 27th 2006
Every Sunday El Rastro is a frenetic, bustling entity. Stretching down from Metro Latina to the Grand Arch of the "Ronda de Toledo", the vast mass of browsing tourists, rickety stalls and hard bargaining locals sprawls so far in every direction that it seems a disservice to label it a street market. One can get quite literally anything here; from Moleskin Notebooks, replica football shirts, various "natural" cosmetics and questionably authentic antiques. The prices are on the right side of decent, but surprisingly it isn't the place to bargain. I picked up a military surplus jacket for 15 euro and though I attempted a fairly pathetic ploy of pretending I only had a tenner (if that stapel of British slang can be successfully applied to the euro), the stallholder would accept nothing less.
The central arteries are so thronged with people that at times, when the flow of the crowd halts, it is impossible to move. At others, one is carried away on an unstoppable tide of humanity that it is difficult to escape from. The place is intense and exhausting, only the most determined shopper thrives. The pickpockets need not be so steadfast for this is their territory (that
sounds almost comically ominous, try not to laugh).
Despite several warnings from travel guides and message boards, I still didn't expect to be pickpocketed. And I suppose, despite the fact that I looked every inch the German tourist with my freshly purchased German Infantry jacket and blatant camera wielding, I wasn't. Maybe after four weeks away I have developed some street smarts. Maybe not. My Dad, who was visiting me for the weekend, wasn't so lucky.
For half an hour or so he had been searching for a Real Madrid shirt for my Brother. I had thought that these would be fairly prevelant throughout the market, but there had been no sign of them. Eventually we found a shirt stall on a gently sloping street that allowed us to see over the head of all the shoppers. I left my Father to investigate the shirts, while I attempted to take covert photos of the passing crowd. (BTW this is the ONLY way I can get good photos of people. I am too shy to just walk up to someone and ask for their photo, and this kind of destroys the candour of the moment. I also don't have
the balls to just blatantly take pictures of a stranger, so I often have to attempt a covert shot. Most of the time, either the photo turns out awfully or the person spots me and I just look stupid. How do real photographers do it? I have no idea.)
A few seconds later I became aware of a disturbance in my peripheral vision.
In situations like this my brain seems to work extremley slowly, like it is stuck in glue, The neurons need time to fire or somethingFortunately time seems to slow down correspondingly, it's probably the adrenalin.
"Oh look, there's a disturbance of some kind over by that shirt stall".
"Some sleazy looking spanish guys are running around and shouting".
"They seem to be patting some poor guy's jeans with great vigour".
"That poor guy is my Father"
"Why are they patting his Jeans?"
"Fuck, this can't be good"
"Are they hurting him?"
"No, they aren't hurting him."
"They must be after his money"
"I should probably warn him. "
"I've heard about this kind of scam before somewhere".
"How the hell does
it work again"
"The victim is distracted while someone else makes off with the wallet"
"So who's got the wallet?. "
"Shit, that guy with the sunglasses is holding a wallet behind his back."
"He hasn't seen me."
"I'll go for it"
(time speeds up again an everything seems to happen at once.)
I grab for the wallet and it comes out of the pickpocket's hand with almost no resistence. Someone pushes one of his accomplices, and angry words thrown back and forth in Spanish. The would be thieves sensibly take this as their cue to leave. My father spots his wallet but he doesn't see that it's me who has it so he rushes over and is on the brink of punching me, when he realises I'm not a pickpocket.
We are left standing in a rapidly emptying street, locals swiftly go about their business with facial expressions that proclaim their inocence but are at the same time scornful of our stupidity. They seem to be suggesting it's our fault, Gullible British tourists. We check the wallet. Nothing is missing. My Dad buys the football shirt and we leave; shaken but
I was in Madrid for an inconcievably long time. Almost two weeks by the time I got round to leaving. Towards the end I was giving advice to lost tourists on the location of the nearest internet cafe. I didn't plan to stay that long, but I dawdled too long after my Dad had left and I also hadn't planned on the disruption Easter would cause. Easter means a lot more than chocolate eggs round here, it's serious business. When I tried to leave all the trains and buses out of the city were booked and all the cheap accomodation pretty much anywhere else in Spain was full. Even in Madrid I had problems. Towards the end of Easter week I was having to switch hostel every night. Even though I was technically in the same city, I had no sense of stability.
By the end of the first week I had seen most of the tourist sites: The Palacio Real, the three major art musems (which are all outstanding in different ways). I had walked down the Gran Via and promenaded around the Plaza mayor countless times. To pass the time I took to the
parks. Madrid has fantastic Parkland and I would hit up a different one every day; The lively and popular El Retiro; The wilderness of the Casa Del Campo. I spent a rainy afternoon sitting on an empty, sheltered outdoor bar in the Campo Del Moro. I read George Orwell and watched the tame peackocks flounce about until some senile old women started shouting at me for no apparent reason.I ignored her, but I thought I might have been disregarding some sort of sacred Spanish custom on Bar-sitting until she wandered up the path and started hissing at at a couple who were strolling past. I spent a small fortune on English language books. "The Great Gatsby", "Love in the time of Cholera" and "Down and Out in Paris and London". I finished them all before I left. I really have to slow down on the Reading.
Originally I had planned to take several day trips out of Madrid, but only got around to going to Toledo. Realising I couldn't take the faster, more comfortable and free (with interail) train service, because it was booked, I opted for the bus instead. I fell asleep en route in the blazing midday
heat and woke up with my contacts stinging and an irrepressible need to drink a litre and a half of water that i didn't have.
I loved Toledo for it's natural surroundings and it's medieval buildings but nothing else. It is very photogenic, but not exactly a very satisfying place to visit. The whole city is full to the brim with tourists (to be fair Spanish visitors as much as foreign) and subsequently the city caters to them with tourist prices and tourist shops. For some reason one out of every three shops seems trade in violent weaponry. I am guessing most of it is replica (I didn't investigate), but it still seems the demand for dangerous medival arms it unusually large in Toledo. I spent a couple of hours doing the usual; wandering the backstreets, drinking gallons of water in the plaza´s; but the Alacazar and Cathedral were closed and there were hour long queues for everything else. I would have liked to have seen the El Greco museum, but in that heat I was beyond caring. After a few hours the tourists began to depress me so I took the next bus back to Madrid.
the evenings I drank a litre or two of Sangria, (In two of the hostels I stayed at which, this could be had 2:50 a litre), and tried to meet new and exciting (or at least mildly interesting) people. Most of the time I was successful. Changing accomodation regularly forced me to abandon all social inhibitions. If I saw someone who looked interesting I'd either ask to join them or just sit down and start talking. It is amazing how easy being outgoing is when you have to do it. I doubt I could keep it up back home though
Most nights in Madrid I stayed in. I was trying to save money and most of the hostels I stayed at had bars that were lively and more importantly cheap. In the Cat's hostel I met an English Girl named Mirriam who was a medical student at Cambridge. She was lovely, but inevitably had a boyfriend (isn't that always the case). We went to watch some Jazz which was very good, but the drinks were expensive so we moved on. Running into a Semana Santa Parade on our way to more bars,we talked about Languages and Careers and the
complete with camp expression
intricacies of Felafal making. It was a good night, but I can hardly say I experienced the famously late, full-on Madrid nightlife. I was back in bed by 2:00. Maybe next time.
My Dad coming down for the weekend was a refreshing change, but after lengthy periods of solitude it was hard to adjust. Just keeping up consistent conversation was difficult because I have been so used to a sort of interior monologue. Most of the time was spent chatting in cafe's drinking a "cafe con leche" or a "cerveca". A few decent meals didn't go amiss either, particuarly after surviving on Cheese, Ham, Bread and Fruit for the best part of a week. A word of advice though: don´t eat in or around the Plaza Mayor, the meals are poor and at tourist prices.
On the Saturday night we went to the Real Madrid/Real Sociedad game. That first glimpse of the interior of the Santiago Bernabeau was worth the admission price alone (not that I payed). From up high it is truly spectacular. My Dad had feared that we would be too high to see anything. While we were very close to the top, such a view
provided a unique perspective; from up there I could really notice the player movement and the general shape of the team. Madrid dominated the first half. Guti was controlling the game, slinging balls out to the wing and through the channels. They scored late on in the half, Zidane set up Ronaldo from a free kick. But from then on they just sat back. By the time the second half got underway Sociedad were by far the better team. Sociedad equalised midway through the first half and Madrid had a few late chances, but it kind of petered out towards the end. Anyway whenever I go to a new stadium and the game is rubbish I always say: "it doesn't matter what the game was like because it was the experience that counts". Fortunately it wasn't a game where I had to say that.
I realise this entry is coming rather sporadic and essentially just a snapshot of random occurences. Sorry about that. But because I was in Madrid for so long it is hard to sum everything up in nice rounded little article. I don't have an "angle", so to speak. Even though I was "in situ" for
Slightly less camp
so long I never really felt like I was living there. I didn´t engage with the locals enough to feel that. But by the final few days I did get that sense of boredom that comes with being in a place to long. I suppose one of the dead giveaways with people who are new to a place is that they are always open to new experiences, their heads are up wheras the local's heads are down. By the final few days I wasn't looking, my feet knew the way around. I knew the way to the Corte Ingles (the supermarket), to my favourite internet cafe and to an Irish bar to watch the football. I was really just killing time. I have always thought it would be nice to live in a foreign country, but maybe after a few weeks of novelty it would be just like those last few days in Madrid. Same routine, different place.
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